Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

The Myth of 'Faulty Intelligence'

The Iraq War, both how it began and how it proceeded, is now an active topic in the 2016 presidential campaign, which I think is a highly salutary development. But it does mean that we need to be on guard for the kind of distortions, misleading statements, and outright lies that characterized this debate from its very start in 2002. As you've heard by now, the Republican Party is currently divided over whether, knowing what we know now, we should ever have launched the war. Most of the Republican presidential candidates are (to my surprise, I'll admit), saying the answer is of course not, while Jeb Bush is saying that he really doesn't want to say, because doing so would be a "disservice" to the troops (which would only be true if he also thinks the answer is no).

One thing they all agree on, though, is that for better or worse the whole thing happened because of "faulty intelligence." If only America's intelligence agencies hadn't screwed up so badly, then everyone wouldn't have been convinced of what a terrifying threat Iraq was to America, and the whole thing would never have happened. Jeb Bush himself said that one of the most important lessons to take from the war is, "If you're going to go to war, make sure that you have the best intelligence possible and the intelligence broke down." But the intelligence didn't "break down."

You can't understand the decisions that led to the Iraq War without grasping just how incredibly politicized the intelligence process had become in the months before the war. Every piece of intelligence that passed through the American government was subject to different interpretations depending on who was looking at it, and throughout there was intense pressure on people within the intelligence community to deliver to the senior people in the Bush administration—the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, and others—exactly what everybody knew they wanted.

And what they wanted was war. Today, Republicans act as though the intelligence community burst into the Oval Office and said, "Mr. President, Mr. President, Iraq is a terrible threat, and if we don't invade we're doomed!" and then Bush said, "Gee, if you say so, I guess we'd better." But it worked the other way around.

Taking out Saddam Hussein was a priority for many of the senior people in the administration from the moment they took office, and after September 11 it was amped up into a public campaign that can go by no other name but propaganda. When those in the intelligence community saw the administration's leaders on TV talking about how Iraq was in cahoots with al-Qaeda and had all kinds of ghastly weapons, you better believe they got the message right quick.

Much of the pressure was informal and much of it came from the understandable desire not to miss something that could lead to another 9/11, but there were practical ways in which "the intelligence" was distorted to serve the administration's purposes as well. For instance, there was a special office within the Department of Defense, staffed by neoconservatives long committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein, whose job was to cherry-pick intelligence snippets that could be used to paint a picture of a terribly threatening Iraq, then send it up the chain to be used by senior officials in their public persuasion efforts. The administration even pressured CIA interrogators to torture detainees in a futile effort to produce "evidence" of a link between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda.

So it isn't correct to say "the intelligence" about Iraq was wrong, even if there were specific bits of information that turned out to be false. The truth is that the Bush administration hyped every bit of intelligence it could find that could be presented as proving that Iraq presented a dire threat, while downplaying any information or conclusion that pointed in the other direction.

Yet if there was anything that characterized the administration and its defenders during the run-up to the war, it was confidence, their absolute certainty that the case for the existence of Saddam's WMD arsenal was iron-clad and the war would go precisely according to plan. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us," said Dick Cheney in a key speech in August 2002. "We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know they have active programs. There isn't any debate about it," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war," said Bill Kristol. And of course, Cheney insisted that "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."

To hear Republicans tell it today, it wasn't just the administration but everyone who believed that at the time, yet this too is false. While many Democrats cast a craven vote in favor of the war, there were plenty of people at the time warning that the evidence for WMDs was shaky and that we were headed for a disaster that would play out over the course of years, just as it did. For instance, reporters from Knight-Ridder produced a series of articles casting serious doubts on the WMD claims. In the fall of 2002, months before the war began, James Fallows published a long article in the The Atlantic entitled "The Fifty-First State?" based on interviews with dozens of experts who painted a grim picture of what lay ahead. "Merely itemizing the foreseeable effects of a war with Iraq suggests reverberations that would be felt for decades," Fallows wrote. "If we can judge from past wars, the effects we can't imagine when the fighting begins will prove to be the ones that matter most."

So let's make no mistake: "Faulty intelligence" didn't produce the deaths of 4,000 American servicemembers and a couple of hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. Faulty intelligence didn't strengthen Iran's position in the region, lead to an exponential increase in anti-Americanism, and give rise to ISIS. It was the delusions, deceptions, and hubris of the Bush administration and its supporters. They got exactly the intelligence they demanded, and used it to ends they had decided on long before.

This history is absolutely critical to understand today, because if the only lesson politicians take from Iraq is "make sure the intelligence is right" then they will have learned nothing. And when the time comes to decide what to do about Iran or Syria or some other foreign policy challenge, we'll be no less likely to go hurtling down into another nightmare that will take years to crawl out of.

Photo of the Day, You Look Mahvelous Edition

A staffer at Madame Tussaud's in London prepares Chewbacca for the wax museum's new Star Wars exhibit. I can only imagine the amount of conditioner it takes to keep all that hair shiny and manageable.

How Changes In Americans' Religious Views Are Cornering the GOP

Just yesterday, I wrote a critical post about Jeb Bush's recent speech at Liberty University in which he essentially made a case for Christianity as the greatest of all religions ("Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it's all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence"). I pointed out that while Republican primary voters might be eager to hear that message, it wouldn't go over as well among the broader population, where Christians are declining as a proportion of the population and the group sometimes referred to as the "nones"—a combination of atheists, agnostics, and people who just say they aren't part of any religion—is growing rapidly. Well today the Pew Research Center is out with its latest report on Americans' religious affiliations, and the results are not only striking, they demonstrate the point I was making even more clearly (so nice when things work out like that).  

There are lots of fascinating things in the report, but I'll just highlight a couple. First, not only has the absolute number of Christians declined since they last did this study in 2007 (and by the way, it's a huge survey with a sample of 35,000), they've declined as a proportion of the population from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. That decline is most concentrated among Catholics and mainline Protestants. All the non-Christian faiths like Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists showed an increase. But the most dramatic rise is among the "nones," who went from 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 to 22.8 percent now.

It's important to understand that the nones are a diverse group; within them you have committed atheists, people who just say religion isn't important to them, and those who sometimes call themselves "spiritual but not religious." That diversity means it would be a stretch to say they all share a worldview in the same way that a group like evangelical Christians do (even though there's a good deal of ideological diversity within evangelicals). Nevertheless, there are now more of these unaffiliated Americans than there are Catholics or mainline Protestants, something that would have been unimaginable not long ago.

What jumped out most to me was the differences across generations. Pew didn't include a graph of this particular finding, so I made one myself:

We obviously don't know what will happen in the future—there could well be a religious revival in America, and we're still far and away the most religious of the highly developed countries. But unless there's a dramatic shift in the opposite direction from where we're now moving, simple generational replacement will produce a country that is more religiously diverse overall, less Christian, and less religious.

To return to where we began, this is yet another way in which the Republican Party is bound to the past. Their base is white and Christian in a country that's steadily becoming less of both, and they need to hold on to that base while expanding their appeal beyond it. Part of the problem is that the more diverse the country becomes, the more embattled and oppressed conservative whites and Christians feel. Republican politicians respond to those feelings by reinforcing their victimhood narratives and emphasizing identity politics. That then further alienates non-whites and non-Christians, hardening the limits of the GOP's appeal and making it more difficult to "reach out" to those voters they're going to need to stay competitive. It's a vicious cycle, and one they can't quite figure out how to break out of.

Photo of the Day, Adorable Monk Edition

A young boy participating in a ceremony at a Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea to honor the Buddha's birthday. 

What Really Matters in 2016

So over the weekend, Rick Perry reminded Republicans of what's really at stake in this election:

"Something I want you all to think about is that the next president of the United States, whoever that individual may be, could choose up to three, maybe even four members of the Supreme Court," he said. "Now this isn't about who's going to be the president of the United States for just the next four years. This could be about individuals who have an impact on you, your children, and even our grandchildren. That's the weight of what this election is really about."

"That, I will suggest to you, is the real question we need to be asking ourselves," he continued. "What would those justices look like if, let's be theoretical here and say, if it were Hillary Clinton versus Rick Perry? And if that won't make you go work, if I do decide to get into the race, then I don't know what will."

Perry is absolutely right, and what everyone focuses on when this topic comes up is just how long in the tooth the current Court is; by next year's election day, three of the justices will be in their 80s and another will be 78. What's really important in the short to medium term isn't just that the next presidency will see multiple retirements, it's that the next presidency will likely see a shift in the Court's ideological balance.

That's because the aging justices come from both wings of the Court. For instance, the two oldest justices are Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be 87 when the next president finishes his or her first term, and Antonin Scalia, who will be 84. The next oldest is Anthony Kennedy, who will also be 84 by then. Imagine if all three were to retire some time in those four years. If the president were a Democrat, that would mean that the Court would wind up with a 6-3 liberal majority. If the president were a Republican, it would be a 6-3 conservative majority. Now for a real scare, add in Stephen Breyer (who will be 82 by the end of the next president's first term, and you could wind up with a 7-2 conservative majority.

Nothing is assured, of course, because you don't know how health, fatigue, or politics might keep any particular justice on the Court or make them leave. But the odds are quite high that the next president will be able to leave the Court with a strong majority leaning toward his or her ideology. That kind of shift hasn't happened in decades; the last time a retiring justice was replaced by someone appointed by a president from the other party was in 1991, when Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama only got the chance to replace a justice they liked with another justice they liked, leaving the Court's balance unchanged. But that streak will probably be broken by the next president. And the results for the country will be at least as profound as anything else the president does.